Powered by a crisp, tumbling pattern of tings on the hi-hat cymbal, the Purdie shuffle is one of defining grooves in American popular music. A tricky and conveniently flexible beat generating sauntering momentum, the Purdie shuffle drives some of the most familiar songs of the past half century. And the man who created the streamlined version of a foundational African-American rhythm, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, wants to make sure that young drummers learn its fundamentals.
Give the Drummer Some: The Funky Getdown
California Jazz Conservatory, 2040 Addison St., Berkeley
Sept. 18, 8 p.m.
In his first Bay Area appearance in several years, he performs Saturday night at the California Jazz Conservatory as part of Oakland pianist Joe Warner’s Give the Drummer Some series. The latest in a long line of jazz artists who’ve thrived under the tutelage of Berkeley vocalist Faye Carol, Warner opened the month-long drum-centric program Sept. 4 with 62-year-old Dennis Chambers and followed on Sept. 11 with Lenny White, 71. Oakland-reared, New York-based Darrell Green, 42, is the featured drummer on the closing concert Sept. 25. Saturday’s show with Purdie includes Carol, Cuban percussionist Jesus Diaz, and Oakland bassist Rustee Allen, who’s best known for his work in Sly and the Family Stone.
At 82, Purdie is by far the senior master of the series, and he’s the one who asked to add a workshop to his engagement. On Sunday, he’s distributing hard-won wisdom to a lucky crew of drummers (email email@example.com to sign up). Along with tips on how he’s honed his precision and power, he might share stories about gigs and recording sessions with the likes of Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Steely Dan, Miles Davis, Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway.
He’s a larger-than-life figure who presides behind the drum kit like a beneficent patriarch, and he wants what’s best for all the citizens subject to his beats. Purdie has been passionate about teaching for the past 40 years “because I had a great teacher myself,” he said. “I can’t stand when somebody wants to answer the question and they have no idea what they’re talking about.”
Much like Faye Carol has been known to dish out some tough love on the bandstand when young musicians haven’t done their homework, Purdie describes a formative encounter when his precociously gifted 12-year-old self was confronted by a musical challenge for which he was not prepared. His teacher didn’t mince words.
“I thought I was god’s gift to the drums at that time, until I found out I wasn’t,” he said. “I just left. I couldn’t even pack up the drums. I was thankful I was still at home so I didn’t have too far to go! The joy I get is knowing how to tell somebody they’re doing something not quite the way I think it should go. It’s not that they’re doing it wrong, but I can help you do it so much better.”
Across some six decades, few drummers have played better in more circumstances than Purdie, whose vast discography includes some of the 20th century’s most influential and beloved records. A top-shelf studio musician, he’s credited on hundreds of albums by artists such as Joe Cocker, Robert Palmer, Esther Phillips, Hall and Oates, Laura Nyro, and B.B. King. He’s also recorded extensively under his own name.
As a jazz sideman his credits cover the length and breadth of the tradition, from Louis Armstrong to Dizzy Gillespie to Albert Ayler, not to mention dozens of recordings with Hammond B-3 organists. But his most indelible contribution is his trademark Purdie shuffle, a groove that other drummers applied on songs such as Led Zeppelin’s “Fool In the Rain,” Toto’s “Rosanna,” and Death Cab for Cutie’s “Grapevine Fires.” Purdie himself supplies the grease on Steely Dan’s “Home at Last” and “Babylon Sisters.”
Any drummer playing idioms related to the overlapping realms of R&B, soul, jazz, funk, pop, blues and rock contends with Purdie. Berkeley drummer Scott Amendola first remembers encountering his music via Steely Dan, but before long he found his way to the motherlode, Aretha Live At The Fillmore West and King Curtis’s Live At Fillmore West, classic albums recorded during the same 1971 run (with the latter recording featuring Franklin’s band the Kingpins led by saxophonist King Curtis). Before long, he was also studying Franklin’s 1972 album Young, Gifted and Black, which includes Purdie’s relentlessly grooving work on “Rocksteady.”
“Those three albums have been staples,” said Amendola, who plays a series of gigs around the region with Hammond B-3 organist Wil Blades, guitarist Jeff Parker and the single-monikered Seattle saxophonist Skerik, including Friday at Ivy Room’s Fireside Lounge series in Alameda, Saturday afternoon at Palo Alto’s Lytton Plaza and Saturday evening at Santa Cruz’s Kuumbwa, and Sunday at Sweet Water Music Hall in Mill Valley.
“The obvious thing is the pocket and groove and sensibility,” Amendola said. “Purdie was such a key component in the transition from jazz to other things and such an important part of the drumming fabric of soul music. He was the guy who jazz players went to when they wanted to go a little more commercial.”
Purdie reveled in his gift for reaching people with a groove. For many years, musicians who hired him for a session would be greeted in the studio by the drummer flanked by two placards. The sign on the left read “You done it,” and the one on the right continued, “You done hired the hit-maker, Bernard ‘Pretty’ Purdie.”
Interviewing Purdie for the first time I had a list of half a dozen albums I was hoping to ask him about, including Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, Gil-Scott Heron’s Pieces of a Man, Louis Armstrong and His Friends, and Nina Simone Sings the Blues. But our appointed time ran out after we’d only discussed the first one, so I’m glad I started with Aretha Live At The Fillmore West. The extraordinary performance was fueled by Franklin’s pleasure at the presence of Ray Charles, who flew up from Los Angeles in his private plane to see the concert.
Charles came to the third, concluding night of the run on March 7, 1971 and it was their first in-person meeting, Purdie said. Franklin evidentially didn’t want to keep Charles waiting, taking the stage with her band immediately rather than letting them play their usual 45-minute warm up set by themselves. And once she was up there she seized hold and wouldn’t let go.
“She was so happy, she did an encore, and a second encore, and it was 11 p.m. and the music has not stopped,” Purdie recalled. “Oh my heavens! I am tired. I’ve been working for three hours straight. She comes off the stage and the next thing we knew she’s walking back on with Ray Charles.”
Most of the performance wasn’t included on the original album, but in 2006 Rhino Records released a limited edition four-disc set Don’t Fight the Feeling: The Complete Aretha Franklin & King Curtis Live at Fillmore West that now sells for hundreds of dollars (you can watch part of their performance together on YouTube). Purdie pulled himself together when Charles joined the fray.
“We just went,” he said. “The two of them playing the piano and singing together. When they cut down to half time, boy was I the happiest person in the world. I can relax. It was a quarter to 12 when we finished. The people were phenomenal, just roaring. We thought the place was going to fall apart.”
Berkeley bassist Peter Barshay delivered a compelling reminder of his prodigious musicianship last Saturday night at the Paul Mahder Gallery in Healdsburg, where with minimal preparation he joined former Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson and tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens (Berkeley High class of 1997) in the quartet led by drum legend and newly minted NEA Jazz Master Billy Hart. He didn’t take an extended solo, but his sure-footed sense of time kept the often slippery music on the righteous path. He leads his own trio with veteran drummer Vince Lateano and stellar pianist Matt Clark Sunday afternoon at St. Albans Episcopal Church as part of the Calliope concert series. The performance, which is supported by Jazz in the Neighborhood’s Fair Wage Fund, will also be livestreamed.